Holding Space for the Broken Hearted

The sister of Empathy is called Holding Space. They hold hands a lot and hang out together watching old episodes of M.A.S.H., sharing a bag of BBQ potato chips, and wiping their red-tipped fingers on their jeans.

Empathy, as we’ve discussed, is when you can feel what another person is feeling by making them human to you because you can identify their experience with something that’s happened in your own life.

Holding Space is when you give that other person all the room they need to process their emotions without judgment, shame, or irritation, and you don’t try to fix the problem.

Think about when you’ve gone through something challenging in your life. Was there someone who wanted you to hurry up and just get over it already? Probably a parent, sibling, or spouse depending on your age. Did someone tell you that you were dumb for being hurt in the first place? Did they shove it in your face that it was your own dang fault, whatever it was that happened? Did they refuse to take any responsibility if it was partly (or solely) their fault? Did they gas-light you and make you feel like you were going crazy for caring? Did they compare their own lives and hard things to yours to try and diminish your feelings? These are all things that are NOT holding space.

Here, you can watch it in action. Van Jones is trying to express his feelings of sadness and explain to Corey Lewandowski that people need a little time to heal and feel and Mr. Corey Lewandowski is having none of it.

Here’s the truth: we are all one, big family on this earth and if some of us are hurting, we’re doing it wrong. We need for everyone to be getting their needs met. The more selfish and ignorant people there are who refuse to acknowledge the pain of others, the more hurt, strife, war, hardships, sadness, grief, and pain the world has to hold. And when there is a spike like there is right now in our political climate, it’s too much for us, as a group, to hold and it spills over into violence and hate speech as a way to protect us from things we don’t understand. Small skirmishes everywhere. People hurting other people intentionally. There will probably always be people who have every intention of hurting others and they do it very well, so as many people as I can persuade who are doing it UNintentionally and would like to change, the better.

When you hold space for someone, you are in essence saying, “Here. Let me create safety around you to process and go through all the stages you need to. No really, go ahead. Be mad, sad, angry, yell about it, cry about it, laugh about it, say salty words if you want. Tell me how utterly alone you feel and how gut-wrenchingly unfair it is. I’ll just sit here and love you.” Sometimes that’s enough. Don’t underestimate how huge it is for someone to fully feel heard. Other times, when they are done sharing, ask how you can help support them. Many people won’t want you to try and fix it for them, but they will welcome your support in creating change.

We ALL go through several stages when we work through any big feelings. We’ve got the stages of grief, sure, but your body cycles through lots of feelings, one after the other, when lots of different kinds of things happen. It’s how we’re built and it can lead to overwhelm. Sometimes we have these little tea kettle bursts of anger that help reset our equilibrium. We “take it out” on whomever is closest because something they say or do or just ARE triggers something in us. (Here’s some more constructive ways to let off steam.)

We also have a lot of knee-jerk emotions that pop to the surface before we’ve even had a chance to think logically about anything. Our lizard brains are always turned on for Flight/Fight response and if our adult, mature self isn’t in control, we’re going to say things we feel intensely in that moment when we feel threatened, but they are things that we don’t want to invite to live with us forever. We need the freedom to feel those things, free of judgement, own them, look at them, and then let them go as we move on to the next thing until we can CHOOSE on PURPOSE where we want to land. And that takes time!

Right now, in this moment, as a country, we need people who can hold space for each other like I haven’t felt in years. This is huge, what’s happening. People are in SO MUCH PAIN. Other Highly Sensitive People and empaths like me can feel it like a churning thrum under the surface of everything. My head felt like it was encased in silly putty all day yesterday and my stomach was in knots. I spent a lot of time trying to help others process their emotions by holding space. It was the only way I survived.

You might not be an empath or an HSP and that’s great. You might have the normal range of emotions and if you’re not affected that much by the thought of a Trump presidency, and you don’t get what the big deal is, now is your time to learn how to hold space. Find someone in your circle who is hurting. It shouldn’t be too hard, because they are everywhere. Watch how your internal dialogue is speaking to them. Are you saying things in your head like, “Geez. Drama much?” or “This isn’t that big of a deal.” or “Why do they want to play the victim?” as they are crying or showing signs of being upset, scared, or worried? Are you comparing the situation to something hard you went through and thinking, “This is nothing like when (insert hard thing) happened to me!” Are you just super uncomfortable with people having so many feelings all over the place? Take a beat and breathe. Instead of judging them for how YOU would be handling the situation or feeling, just allow them to have their feelings. Don’t get offended. Don’t take it on. Just listen and be a safe person. They will thank you.

If you are an HSP or empath, you will already be familiar with what I’m talking about, and your challenge is the opposite. DON’T take on their feelings, instead be a flowing stream. DON’T internalize what they’re saying and own it and make it yours and let it take root because it will make you ill. You can’t help them if you are, yourself, deep in the feels. You need to remember what is yours and what is theirs. It’s a kindness to them if you can keep your gentle strength while you let them unpack all their stuff. Take breaks throughout the day for your health. Do your grounding exercise. Clear your chakras. Meditate. Check how your energy is running. And then dive back in for more, because there is an immense amount of pain to be felt and gone through.

And no matter who you are, hold space for yourself first, because you being balanced means you’ve already run through your big emotional overwhelm and come out of the other side OR you’re able to set your own work aside and help someone else do theirs. It’s ok to say, “I need a short break,” if you’re holding space for someone else and you get triggered. You know you’re triggered if you start saying things that aren’t supportive and you feel defensive and/or you feel your emotions rise.

Things to watch out for:

  • Don’t justify your position.
  • Don’t compare.
  • Don’t try to fix it while they’re talking.
  • Don’t belittle.
  • Don’t roll your eyes.
  • Don’t even talk unless it’s really, truly kind.
  • Do listen, listen, listen.
  • Do try and put yourself in their shoes.
  • Do try to imagine that person as God would see them: Perfectly Imperfect.
  • Do be encouraging.
  • Do be gentle.
  • Do apologize if you, for a moment, get pulled back into your own feelings and react instead of act. “I’m sorry about what I just said. It was judgemental. Let me try again.”
  • Do ask for more information if you don’t understand what they’re saying. “Can you tell me more about that? It sounds really hard.” or “No, I don’t understand but I love you very much. Can you explain it a different way?”
  • Do ask if and how you can be on their team and what it would take to support them after they’re done sharing.

This takes work to learn! But I believe everyone can do it with practice. Please try. We need you. <3

2 Replies to “Holding Space for the Broken Hearted”

  1. This is wonderful, however I am the first to admit it is proving extremely difficult after what just happened in this country of mine to just sit back, idly, and say and do absolutely nothing but promote positive energy. Just in the past 36 hours, two young men I love very deeply, were subjugated to frightening and dangerous confrontations from people who now feel they have the right to threaten anyone they choose in public, and put them in fear for their very life, just because they are gay. I am working towards where I thought I was before this all happened, but events are making this beyond difficult for me to turn the other cheek.

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